Spring is the time to put up a bluebird house. Whether you live on a small lot or ten acres, you can attract bluebirds. The Eastern bluebird is one of the most gorgeous and lovely birds you will ever see. But it is important to monitor your box, or you might end helping the dreaded English Sparrow procreate! Read on to find out how we got started on this adventure and a few things we learned along the way.
My first face to face meeting with an Eastern bluebird occurred a year or two after we moved into our house on five acres in northeastern Montgomery County. A bird was stuck in the wood stove, and when I opened the door, out flew a bird whose beautiful bright blue color was only slightly masked by the ashes in the stove. Helped by my parents, ardent bird lovers, my husband and I started a bluebird trail that we have monitored for some twenty-six years. Soon my neighbor followed suit, and we now have collectively at least 20 boxes over ten acres that we have been monitoring for many years.
Bluebird houses must be built to specifications, or if purchased, be labeled specifically for bluebirds. (Too large a hole, and you will get species you do not want.) If you build or buy, you should make sure that your houses are easy to open. Otherwise, you won’t be able to monitor your houses, and you might as well put up a welcome sign for that bluebird-killer, the English Sparrow! (The English Sparrow will peck open the heads of bluebirds –- not a pretty sight.) It is best to mount the houses on poles and not on trees, but my son-in-law successfully attracted bluebirds to a box mounted on a tree in Gaithersburg!
Over the years, we have dealt with just about every kind of predator: snakes, raccoons, ants, humans, and English Sparrows to name a few. Then there is competition for nest boxes from house wrens, chickadees, and tree swallows. Here are a few tips for dealing with predators and competitors. Learn to identify nests so you can successfully monitor your boxes. That messy English Sparrow nest -– pull it out of the box! (Some birders actually kill the English Sparrows. It is legal to do so since English Sparrows are non-native species but I have never had the heart to kill them. I just keep removing their nests until they figure out that they are not welcome. One time, I did trap one and drive it to a McDonald’s!)
If you want to avoid House Wrens, don’t erect your boxes too close to woody areas. And because House Wrens are territorial, they often fill neighboring boxes with their twigs (see picture at right). If I see too many houses filled with twigs (the wren’s M.O.), I remove them from the boxes that bluebirds prefer.
Bluebirds seem to prefer houses in open fields but not too far from a tree to which the babies can fly upon leaving the nest. Tree swallows and chickadees are lovely so I leave their nests alone, and have fun monitoring them as well. Some people use pole guards to deter snakes; we have used carpet tacks. We have also applied tanglefoot or other gooey stuff to poles to deter insects –- they get stuck in it.
It is most important to monitor your boxes –- you won’t scare away the parents! Open the door, and check for nests. Once you see the neatly created bluebird nest, look for the bright blue eggs. (Sometimes they are white.) Have fun watching the babies develop from tiny snail-like creatures to the adorable speckled and feathered babies.
It will take the fledgings up to 22 days in the nest before they will make their first flights. You can check on them but try to avoid opening the box near the end of their stay in the box.
These are just a few tips I have learned over the years. The bluebird was in peril before human intervention helped them stabilize. (Human actions probably contributed to the decline in the first place, but that’s another topic.) If you want to join others in helping the Eastern Bluebird flourish, check out these websites for more information!